Summit County Rescue Group trains its new recruits to survive in the worst conditions
November 9, 2018
"Nature takes no prisoners."
These are Summit County Rescue Group member Andy Harris' words of wisdom about the hidden "enemy" all of us face when we go out into the wild. The cold, the wind, the snow, the altitude, the ever-shifting weather, the bare ground and the blind forest – all work against you when you're trying to survive in the Summit County backcountry.
A rescuer's best weapon against the elements is preparation. To that end, the group prepares its new recruits for the rare, but very possible, event when they must hold fast and protect others against nature for extended periods of time.
On Thursday, the group conducted survival training exercises with seven potential new members, teaching and evaluating their ability to start fires, build a proper shelter and use intuition to adapt to rapidly-changing conditions and circumstances.
Before they went out to start field training, the newbies were given a pep talk and lesson plan in a trailer parked at the Pine Cove campground on the Frisco peninsula. It was 15 degrees in the November darkness, and the thin walls of the single-wide kept little of that cold outside. The creeping chill in the toes was a good reminder that man wasn't meant to survive out here on his own.
John Reller, a member of the group's new member training committee, outlined the "rule of 3s" to the potentials.
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"You can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, three hours without shelter, three minutes without oxygen and only three seconds without the right attitude," Reller told the huddled group as wisps of steam floated off his breath.
He said the right attitude is critical, as dropping your guard even once, not being conscientious about preparation or being unable to adapt to your environment is more likely than any foe killing you out in the wilderness.
Reller also told the recruits that motivation can be the fire inside that pushes a person to survive. Whether it be friends, family or loved ones, having something or someone to come back to can keep a person going, even on the edge of their composure.
Once the briefing was done, the recruits were led out to the now-frozen campground to learn some basics. Crunching over the snow toward an orange glow, the first essential for survival was laid bare: fire.
As cavemen found out eons ago, a good, sustainable campfire can keep a heart beating. Reller showed how the best kindling to start a fire comes from the dry branches growing at the bottom of a tree, and not wood on the ground that's been soaked to the core. Recruits were also advised to always have something handy that can start a fire — commercial firestarters, weather-proof matches and flint. Aside from those items, the most simple items — such as a spoon and a thermos full of a hot, sugary drink — become the most critical necessities in a bind.
Three different fires should be made if a team has to stop in a remote part of the backcountry. The first is for personal warmth, the second to heat food and liquids, and the third as a signal fire. They should be constructed in a rough triangle, both to keep a site organized and because a triangle is a universal symbol that can signal human activity to helicopters or other observers.
Harris went on to show the recruits the four basics of building a shelter: it needs to be built quickly with items already on hand, protect from the elements above and below, have insulation from the ground to prevent heat loss and it needs to be visible from the air to helicopters and, if possible, visible to a search team.
While it is not common for the group to need to stop and camp from the weather, they must always be prepared for the event. Just this past summer, a couple from Texas got stranded on Quandary Peak. The rescue operation was highly technical, involving climbing and adverse weather, which meant it took longer and made for a very rough experience. Rescue members were forced to camp at times, and spent hours in unforgiving conditions. Their survival training was critical.
Training director Helen Rowe, who has served with the group for two years while serving with the Scottish Mountain Rescue for six years prior to that, said that incidents like the Quandary rescue mission make survival training all the more important.
"While we never expect it, we want the potential members to always be prepared to survive 24 to 48 hours in the worst conditions," Rowe said. "Our most important priority is our safety, and building a shelter or a fire are essential to meet basic needs for true survival. They are basic skills everybody should have."
Rowe also said that the group — already one of the nation's busiest and best rescue teams — just saw one of its busiest years, and it will probably just keep getting busier. By this point in 2017, the group had conducted 93 missions involving 306 man-hours. This year, the group conducted 115 missions involving 480 hours.
Despite the increased workload and increasing strain on resources — the group is a nonprofit that relies on donations from the public — Rowe said that the group will never be deterred from its mission.
"We are a team of volunteers, but we are always available and on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even on Christmas Day," Rowe said. "There is no charge for being called out. We always advise people in distress to call 911 and we'll be there, happy to help."
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